Movies, Pop Culture

‘Fresh Off the Boat’ is just reverse yellowface

Fresh Off the Boat is revolutionary in terms of it’s representation, but that's not good enough

“Be polite, respectful, don’t make waves,” are the words of advice that little Eddie’s mom gives her kids before their first day at school in the white-majority town of Orlando, but the controversy of being Other–of being Asian–is the one thing that derails little Eddie’s ability to follow those instructions.

True to the media buzz, Fresh Off the Boat is revolutionary in terms of it’s representation and, like Eddie, just can’t stop making waves because of it’s premise – Asian main characters.

[bctt tweet=”Fresh Off the Boat is revolutionary in terms of representation.” username=”wearethetempest”]

If you’re reading this article, then you probably know that Margaret Cho’s “All-American Girl” (1994) was the last Asian-led TV show that ABC picked up. Knowing this, I can’t deny what it means to me and other Asian-Americans to finally see faces like ours in mainstream media and regular programming again after 20 years. I can’t begin to explain how it feels to know that the casting of an Asian family provided at least six Asian Americans acting jobs, taking into consideration how most of the acting roles available for them outside of this show are either nonexistent or docile/overly militant stereotypes.

But with White producers who refuse to listen to Eddie Huang, and a Persian writer who can only identify with specific and universal aspects of being Other in America, I think that my skepticism shouldn’t come as a surprise.

I mean, I was hopeful. I really was. In the face of loud criticism from Eddie Huang himself, I still wanted to believe that maybe the show was redeemable.

[bctt tweet=”I was hopeful. I really was.” username=”wearethetempest”]

I guess the producers aren’t the only ones who need to learn to trust a minority writer.

My biggest complaint, in Eddie’s own words, is that it’s “…A reverse-yellowface show with universal white stories played out by Chinamen.”

I mean, the show touched on all their cultural checkmarks–the boys in Eddie’s school make fun of his lunch, another POC calls him a chink, and his mom complains to the principal that school is too easy when he gets straight A’s, but those are all situations either taken directly from Eddie’s book or keeping in line with it. The show itself tends to deviate from the perfectly decent material in it’s book counterpart, and when it goes off script things don’t work out as well.

The humor of the show is devoted to cheap shots, and is ultimately carried by the character of the Mom. There’s little to no substance to the show, in reality.

[bctt tweet=”The humor of the show is devoted to cheap shots.” username=”wearethetempest”]

From how I saw it, Fresh Off the Boat is “radical” enough to pacify weary Asian Americans and white journalists but not radical enough to actually threaten any change.

Let me reiterate here: representation is ultimately important, and is what this show comes down to. It comes down to being able to supply Asian actors with non demeaning jobs and allowing Asian people to see people like themselves on regular programming.

Anything past that, however, seems lost on its producers.

As an Asian American myself, I could only connect to the show on a superficial level. Racial slurs: I get. The strangeness of white supermarkets: I get. An immigrant family dynamic: I definitely get it.

What I don’t get is why this show is so clearly written for a White demographic. This was just a quirky white family disguised as Asians who sometimes have Asian-specific struggles with their community.

[bctt tweet=”Why is this show written for a white demographic?” username=”wearethetempest”]

I understand, on a fundamental level, that the network probably knows that White viewers are the only thing that will keep the show afloat, and so it refuses to go into any sort of unfamiliar territory. On the other hand, really? For a show that’s supposedly about representation, it seriously fails to do anything but look weak and afraid.

Representation is not the be-all, end-all in terms of social justice.

[bctt tweet=”Representation is not the be-all end-all.” username=”wearethetempest”]

What use is representation if all it does is make White people feel good about “the progress of their society”, and doesn’t actually make any progress? POC shouldn’t have to demand that their actual stories be told on TV, and they certainly shouldn’t have to sit through a white-washed version of their experiences in order to catch a glimpse of themselves on the tele.

I want to say that we have to “ease into it” but if we put this show up against others of it’s kind–that is to say, shows pioneering for racial diversity–like ‘Orange Is the New Black’, I’m just disappointed. The fault most likely lies in the nature of ABC, the Disney-owned channel that it airs on.

All in all, Fresh Off the Boat offers the sort of temporary and light-hearted entertainment that lies in the realm of mindless late-night TV and offers nothing more radical beyond minimal representation.

It follows a predictable A and B plot format, tells mediocre jokes, and it’s characters range from entertaining to blatantly annoying.

Regardless of race, it’s just not that great of a show. If the Huang family was white, I’m inclined to believe that not as many people would like it to the degree that they do.

[bctt tweet=”It’s just not that great of a show.” username=”wearethetempest”]

As Saint Bernard of Clairvaux once said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

While Fresh Off the Boat was full of good intentions, it ultimately failed to fill the progressive-comedy role that the media has assigned it.